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​'Why does the NHS use insecure and archaic technology to transfer patient information?'

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It’s not often these days that I read a headline that I am genuinely surprised by. But this was certainly the case last week.

The story in question related to a warning from a royal college that many NHS trusts were still using “archaic” fax machines, which it described as “ludicrous”.

A Freedom of Information request by the Royal College of Surgeons of England had revealed that over 8,000 fax machines were still in use across the NHS.

In addition, of the 95 trusts that responded, around 40% reported they had more than 100 of the devices in use.

The top three were named as Newcastle upon Tyne Foundation Trust with 603 fax machines, Barts Health Trust with 369 machines and Stockport Foundation Trust with 250.

The survey followed a report last year by artificial intelligence company DeepMind Health, which named the NHS as the world’s largest purchaser of fax machines.

“To put this in personal perspective, I tried to remember the last time I used a fax machine”

To put this in personal perspective, I tried to remember the last time I used a fax machine. I can’t be sure of the last occasion, but the last time I regularly used one was in 1999 at the start of my journalism career.

As an editorial assistant, I was required to collect press releases that had been faxed to the small office I worked in, phone the senders and ask for them to be emailed over instead.

That period of technology transition took place nearly 20 years ago. In a world now dominated by smart phones, apps and AI, it seems bizarre that the health service is still using fax machines.

The world of healthcare itself is embracing increasingly advanced technologies to improve its efficiency and effectiveness: software designs rotas and safe staffing tools, nurses in the community access electronic records from patients’ homes, and robots help surgeons perform complex procedures.

I recently chaired a round-table event for NHS Digital where frontline nurses involved in adopting and developing technology spoke with passion about its potential to improve care and safety.

“In a world now dominated by smart phones, apps and AI, it seems bizarre that the health service is still using fax machines”

Meanwhile, earlier this week I judged the shortlist in the technology category for our inaugural Nursing Times Workforce Awards – again, hearing from nurses about impressive examples of what is possible.

And this is not just a question of the NHS having found itself a new gap between what it should have and what it does have.

Deanne Driscoll, technology innovation lead nurse at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust, highlighted to me on Twitter that thousands of faxes are misdirected each year, compromising patient confidentiality.

And aside from the security – and possibly safety – issues, where do trusts get replacement parts from to maintain the machines? Another nurse, Karen Hawksworth, told me that, from her experience, there were no parts and no one was willing to fix broken machines.

Unfortunately, the royal college didn’t ask why the trusts in question were still relying on fax machines. Are there any good reasons? Answers on an email, postcard, or even fax.

“And aside from the security – and possibly safety – issues, where do trusts get replacement parts”

As we know, there are many pressures facing the health service and many deserving causes in need of the extra funding promised by government.

But requiring trusts to do away with something that most people have considered obsolete for well over a decade seems like an obvious instruction that needs to come from the top.

If the risks – and potential litigation costs – of confidentiality breeches and communication failures aren’t enough to persuade trusts to step into the 21st century, perhaps NHS England should be putting pressure on them to do so.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Even smart technology communications can be sent to the wrong recipient, perhaps even greater numbers. My Trust doesn’t fax but is behind in terms of IT. Trouble is the cost, our PCs are slow so the process of referrals etc is becoming ever more time consuming. I’m not scared of IT but we haven’t got the right tools and there is a lack on the ward especially as everything on a screen. They are used by the Drs , MDT nurses get to it last!

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